The difference between speaking and teaching

by Derek Featherstone

While I do “speak” at conferences a lot, my background is in teaching. I taught high school, did some instructing at the college and university level, and have done a lot of what most people would call “corporate training.” I’m always one to make the distinction between speaking and teaching. Why? Because they’re different. At least, I think they are.

What is speaking?

If you “speak” for a 45 minute session at a conference, that usually implies that you’re up there, on the stage, running through your slides, talking to the audience, presenting material in a fairly straightforward way—usually, you’re telling them about things or showing them examples of work that you’ve done. That’s what I consider speaking. You or the conference organizer have decided that you have specific things to say, to speak about, to share. Speaking is all about you and the knowledge that you have that you’re giving to the audience.

But what would “teaching” entail? How would it be different?

What is teaching?

If you’re teaching, you’re thinking about the learner. Those people in the audience. You’re thinking about their state of mind. Their prior learning and knowledge. Their experiences. And you’re thinking about what they need—to go off and do their job better, to sell more, or to take action and change the world.

In that case you’ll create learning objectives (I like starting with these four questions — what do I want them to know and do, and what do I want them to feel and who do I want them to be?) and you’ll put a lot of time and thought into what their current knowledge, skill or mindset is, and what it will take to get them to where you want them to be (to achieve those objectives). You’ll create an experience for them. You’ll set out a logical knowledge pathway. You’ll choose examples that take steps towards that new knowledge or skill acquisition.

You’ll even figure out what key questions you’d like to ask the audience (not just rhetorical ones, either) to assess their understanding. And you’ll actually ask them those questions and listen to the answers and DO something with the answers. You’ll come up with things to do (other than “listen and watch”) that make them think: thought experiments, visualizations of end goals, or even analysis of examples that help them down the path you want them to take.

Sure some speakers do these things too. But when they do, I’d actually suggest that they’re being much more like a teacher than a speaker. And yes, I know there’s much more to teaching than these few things I’ve pointed out above. But they are a big part of the difference to me.

If speaking is about the speaker having and giving knowledge to the audience, then teaching is all about them and you crafting an educational experience that helps them discover new things, and that helps them create new knowledge for themselves from within.

Next question?

A simple question for you: which would you rather be? The sage on the stage (a speaker that speaks at the audience) or the guide on the side (a teacher that engages the audience)? I know what I want to be. Every time.

January 8th, 2014



Thank you for this post. I “speak” on the topic of grief and loss, health and healing and my goal has always been to teach through speaking. It is always my hope that I am giving concrete techniques that my audience can take home and integrate into their lives to help them move from where they are to where they want to move to in their lives. I never consider my time speaking/teaching as a time about me, it is all about the audience. Why would they be there otherwise?
Be well,
Audrey Pellicano R.N.


Derek, I like this article a lot. Many years ago my grandfather used to say “If the student hasn’t learner, the teacher hasn’t taught,” and so I like to include some kind of assessment into my talks as well. I’ve found that even something very simple, like handing out squares of colored construction paper to the audience and asking them to “vote” on items builds huge amounts of interactivity and gives me a good idea of how much of what I’m saying is getting through. I always find that getting the audience involved as participants makes the whole experience more enjoyable for all of us. Thanks!


Your article is a great reflection for all of teachers out there. One of the greatest obstacles for effective “teaching” is the fear of silence. I recently presented at the Oxford Round Table on this in a paper called the Phenomenology of Silence: Educing Learning and Creativity in the Classroom (
Mastering silence takes your work to a new level.
Thanks for the stimulating blog.


I am curious, is your preference for teaching just your preference, or do you think teaching as you describe is inherently better and ideally even public speakers should do that?

I am very interested in the whole question of teaching vs public speaking. I used to be a teacher and learned it was not for me. I love public speaking (and when I have the time I want to join toastmasters just for fun) and I thought teaching would be more like that but it wasn’t.

I was also very good at tutoring one on one- finding a problem that a student was having and a way to get the student to understand that material he or she is struggling with. But when I teach multiple students at once, I found I was not very good at it.

For one, I was not great at classroom management. I’m not good at multi-tasking- i.e. explaining something while constantly monitoring the room for misbehavior and constantly monitoring the room for confusion. I can do one thing at a time and that is it.

Also, I also hated coming up with lesson plans, objectives, assesments, hands on acitivities, pair shares, and all that. (I never did plan things out in detail when tutoring and frankly I think it would get in the way of being in the moment with the student and changing what you do in relationship to the students present need). I would have preferred to be spontaneous when I lectured (with maybe just a short five sentence outline), but that was never allowed. In my public speaking class at college, THAT was exactly what we did.

I also sometimes find it annoying to have to do hands on activities if I watch a public speaker, even though I am generally a very hands on person. Perhaps its that I “had to” at so many workshops I went to (and they felt just like busy work), or perhaps it’s that it was often childish, or that it often interrupted me from listening to the speaker. Either way I question whether it’s neccessarily “better”. Ok one activity lasting 5 minutes after or during a 45 minute speech might be useful once in awhile, but beyond that just bogs things down.

And hey, the TV doesn’t interact with us and require us to do assessments of what we learned (or watched) but TV is one of the most engrossing things out there. I happen to learn a lot from documentaries as do many people.

I’d rather learn how to be a public speaker at toastmasters any day over being back in the classroom with unruly kids or an administration that loves detailed plans to the point of insanity.

But, putting my opinions aside about all this, in your opinion, could a person who is not a good teacher be a good public speaker? Aren’t the skills very different from each other? Shouldn’t they stay that way?


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